Tuesday, 2 April 2013

David the amazing tuk tuk driver, Killing Caves, Bats + a sobering life-story...

Awoke rather early, had breakfast in our room (last night I managed to find a plastic bowl, spoon and fork set that’s actually for babies, so I can start having cereal and milk), then booked our bus tickets to Siem Reap the next day. David turned up bang on 8am and we set off first to the bamboo train out in the country.

The bamboo train is from the French colonial period and was running up until the government shut it down, as a way to transport goods between villages. Now it’s just one strip in Battambang that is used as a tourist ride between two villages, however even that is now threatened by closure as the government plan to put the old French colonial railways back into action. The bamboo train is literally just a bamboo raft, with an engine fixed to the back. So we arrived, paid our 5 dollar fee and off we went on ye ol’ bamboo train – and did it get some speed up! It was a little bumpy at times as the track was so old and beaten, but it was a great way to see the surrounding countryside and to experience what it would have been like back in the day.

After stopping for a drink at the other village, and chatting to a lovely man at the drinks stool (he had been through the Kymer Rouge war – he even had the awful scars on his body to prove it, god only knows how he got them – and had also lived and schooled in London and France) we then headed back. We were allowed a go on the back of the car each and halfway down we had to stop as two other carts were headed in our direction. How do you solve that one? Lift one bamboo train off the tracks, let the other pass and then lift it back on – off you go!

We got back and our lovely David was playing chess so we watched him win, then he took us on a little city tour before heading back to Battambang for lunch. He took us to the statue that shows the black man with the ‘ disappearing stick’ which is what Battambang means ‘Batt’ is stick and disappearing is ‘ambang’ (a story that involves a man finding a magic stick and one day it goes missing...) He then took us to the old French colonial stone bridge and government building, that still has iron horse shoes in the concrete along it, then to the Peace Monument, made after the war out of confiscated gun metal (literally a statue made of guns). As David rightly put it ‘I wish all guns were taken and made into statues like this, to stop fighting’.  And then he dropped us off for lunch, before returning at 1pm for the next part of our tour.

So off we set in his tuk tuk, where he took us to a little Muslim village, showed us how and what the villages farmed (they used the river banks during dry season, then many would cross into Thailand, leaving their kids with grandparents, to work during the wet season when the banks are flooded.) They grow all sorts, fruits, veg, herbs, then he took us to see the mushroom farm, which is the weirdest way I’ve ever seen mushrooms grown in (hung in plastic bags and they sprout from the openings).

Then it was off to one of the temples nearby (I can’t remember the name, but I do know it dates back to the 11th century and is one of the oldest temples in Cambodia left untouched by the Khmer Rouge.) There were a million (well 375) very steep steps to climb and when we arrived at the temple, it was pretty well preserved. There were also some awesome views. Then we headed to the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau, which first involved a very bumpy half hour ride in the countryside down a pot-hole ridden dirt-track, stopping off along the way to visit a blacksmith. David was telling us how most of this part of Cambodia still had land mines hidden in the ground from the war, which is why so much of it is barren. He also showed us a new road to a village that had been built but unfortunately had many casualties due to the land mines. Many of the workers were disabled or killed by them. So we’d definitely be sticking to the trails then!

When we arrived David told us we had an hour and a half to explore before sunset, when the bats spectacle would happen. So we set off on another long steep climb to the Killing Caves of Phnom Sampeau  (this time it was a hill though rather than steps so a little easier!) Major atrocities occurred there during the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Many victims were bludgeoned to death and then tossed into holes which served as the skylights to the caves. Men and women were placed in separate caves and clothes in another. Today there is a large glass memorial in the cave next to the skulls and bones and a golden reclining Buddha. It was awful being there and picturing what had happened, in fact it was almost un-thinkable, you just couldn’t imagine the fear and pain these people went through, hell before they were even pushed in, TO die. There was also a cave that the children were sent to death at, but this cave wasn’t open to the public.

We then headed back down and took a rest with David at a restaurant, until the bats came out. During this time we got chatting to him about his family – he is from a family of 8, is the 4th child, he is married but they can’t afford children, so he has loaned a tuk tuk from the bank and has another 6 months left to pay off, then he can start his own business and make babies! Yay! David would make an awesome father. Then he mentioned that his family were once very poor, and that he had to drop out of school when he was younger to help his parent’s farm. Two of his younger siblings are at school still and he uses the money he earns to help school his brother and sister as he wants them to get a better job/life than he had and also to buy his parents food and medicine as they are now very old and as a Buddhist he wants to do as much good as he can in life (he was even handing over money to a homeless lady later in the evening, even though he hardly has enough money for himself and his wife!) This then prompted me to want to ask something about his parents. I ummed and arr’d with myself for ages before I asked as I didn’t want to put him under any pressure but eventually I just had to ask...

“So, I would imagine/presume your parents would have lived through the war then?’ he replied yes, and then without even asking (he could have very well ended it there) he proceeded to tell us the whole story of his family during the war.

I have come to find though, that most Cambodians WANT to tell you their story, and if asked they will not shy away from the subject. They want to keep it in peoples’ memories, to give them information, so that it never happens again.  So this is David’s story;

David has 7 siblings. 2 older half-sisters, an older brother, himself, two younger brothers and a younger sister. His two half-sisters were from his parents previous marriages before/during the war. His dad worked as a gem-stone carver in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, when a group from the Kymer rouge showed up at his house one day and pointed a gun at one of his other children. She made a remark that her father had a gun like the one he was holding, and her dad watched from the house, as his own daughter was shot (though we weren’t too sure on this as he kind of told it a little ambiguous but this is what we gathered happened). The only thing that saved his father and one of his daughters (who had pale skin for a Cambodian and was very well off at this time – two things the Khmer Rouge would have killed him on the spot for) was that he was very hard-working and told them that he was a farmer, rather than a gem-stone maker. His then-wife and another child were taken away and killed (children were often either killed if they were too old and would take revenge later on, or kept if young and malleable and were recruited as soldiers, even the girls were trained to kill.) He and David’s now stepsister were sent to work as slaves in the countryside for many years. His mother was a similar story, her husband and another child were killed early on in the war, and her and her elder daughter who were strong workers were saved, and also worked as slaves. Towards the end of the war, both his mother and father and two stepsisters managed to escape to the Thai border and lived in the refugee camps until the war ended. During this time, his mother and father met, got married and had David and his older brother while still living there. The war ended officially in 1994 however the after effects lasted and are still apparent today, and a new government wasn’t elected until 1998 – the threat of the khmer rouge wasn’t truly over until then. His family then moved to Battambang and took up lives of farmers, but they were insanely poor – food was sparse, meals were porridge, maybe a little porridge and rice, and if they were lucky, porridge and vegetables. David was schooled at the refugee camps but had to leave school when they moved back to Cambodia to help his parents on the farm, his brother was fostered by another family while in the refugee camp and so was able to stay in school. He also had two other younger sisters, but between 1995 and 1998 they both sadly caught Malaria, which was rife through Cambodia during the war and for many years after due to lack of medicine and prevention, and unfortunately didn’t survive. His parents then went on to have his other brothers and sisters, and because of the hard times he himself has witnessed over the years, he now does everything he can to give them a better life. David then in 2005 met a Cambodian who knew fluent English and agreed to teach him. This guy had been forced to work for the Khmer rouge during the war (almost everyone other than the younger generation has endured something from the war, which is horrific really). He can now speak fluent English himself and has decided to do farming in his spare time and become a tuk tuk driver as there is more money in it. David has been married for 3 years. He was too poor to marry at first but because his wife’s father actually knew his own father from before the war, both families agreed to pay for the wedding (in Cambodia, it’s the guys family who has to cough up). They have plans for babies but cannot afford them until the tuk tuk has been paid off and David has his own business set up. 

So there you have David’s life story, a rather shorter version than told but still just as horrifying. This left us pretty sober, until the heavens opened with a massive storm and the first monsoon rains of the fast approaching wet season descended upon us. It was quite a sight, within minutes the roads had turned to gushing mud, the kids were in the street with their suds showering or playing, frogs were all over the place, the steps leading up to the temple on the hill had turned into a waterfall and we had pretty much got soaked, even while we were sitting under cover. The storm lasted for about half an hour and we had pretty much given up on seeing the bats come from the cave, when all of a sudden it stopped and within seconds...the bats came out!

It really was a spectacular sight, millions and millions of bats leaving the caves, in a line, flying out into the dusk, and across the trees. They just kept coming and coming – it was like nothing i’ve ever seen before! David then took us back out onto the main road to then see the bats flying over the fields we’d just driven through earlier – a whole massive line of them drifting across the sky, with the lightning from the passing storm behind them – truly a weird and wonderful sight!

It was then time to head back and once in Battambang, said goodbye to David – I would recommend him any day as he was possibly the nicest guy I have met in all my travels – and wrote him a review in his scrap book for future tuk tuk clients to read. It was a wonderful day, and was so lovely of him to open up about his past and his parents’ lives. We said goodbye, then headed for some khmer food to end the day. Then just chilled in the hotel room as we had a bus to Siem Reap at 9am - It’s been a pleasure Battambang!

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